Tag montaigne

Podcast: Slipping the Noose of the Topical

Phillip Lopate on The Virtual Memories Show (2/2)

Virtual Memories – season 3 episode 20 -
Slipping the Noose of the Topical

“When you start out writing, you think, ‘Maybe I’ll become one of the great writers, like Dostoevsky or Goethe, Tolstoy.’ Then you quickly realize that that’s never going to happen. But I’ve been writing now for close to 50 years, and I’ve never really had writer’s block. I think success has been esteem in this particular world of the essay and nonfiction. When I go to conferences for the Association of Writing Programs, I’m treated like a demigod. But when I’m in the real world, I’m anonymous.”

Phillip Lopate, the finest personal essayist of our time, joins us to talk about finding his voice, the difference between memoir and essay, teaching students to use the self to fetch the world, why blogs remind him of Sei Shonagon’s pillow books, what’s too personal for a personal essay, and more!

“I had learned from the great essayists — Montaigne and Hazlitt and Lamb — that it wasn’t so much the subject matter as it was the voice and the display of consciousness that was intriguing. If you liked the essayist, you would read anything that they wrote.”

We discuss his five-decade-plus-long career (spanning 20 books and collections, including 2013′s Portrait Inside My Head and To Show and to Tell), the author who started him on his path, his balance between writing fiction and essays, how readers read and misread his work, his methods for fusing the personal and the critical, why students should read some of his essays before taking his classes, whether he considered going Hollywood, why and how he assembled The Art of the Personal Essay anthology, and who his favorite New York Met is. (I was surprised by his answer to that last one.)

“An editor once told me, ‘Phillip, your idea of a perfect assignment is one where you never have to leave the house.’”

Phillip Lopate on The Virtual Memories Show (1/2)

Enjoy the conversation! Then check out the archives for more great episodes!

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About our Guest

Phillip Lopate is the author of numerous collections of personal and critical essays, including Bachelorhood, Notes on Sontag, Portrait of My Body, Against Joie de Vivre, and Waterfront: A Journey Around Manhattan,, as well as several novels and novellas, and three poetry collections, and has edited several anthologies, including The Art of the Personal Essay and Writing New York. His essays, fiction, poetry, film and architectural criticism have appeared in The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Essays, several Pushcart Prize annuals, The Paris Review, Harper’s, Vogue, Esquire, Film Comment, Threepenny Review, Double Take, New York Times, Harvard Educational Review, Preservation, Cite, 7 Days, Metropolis, Conde Nast Traveler, and many other periodicals and anthologies. He is the director of the nonfiction graduate program at Columbia University, where he also teaches writing. His two most recent books are the personal essay collection Portrait Inside My Head and To Show and to Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction.

Credits: This episode’s music is Sometimes The Truth Is All You Get by The Low and Sweet Orchestra. The conversation was recorded at Mr. Lopate’s home in Brooklyn on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 mics feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. The intro and outro were recorded in my home office on a Blue Yeti USB microphone. File-splitting is done on a Mac Mini using Audacity. All editing and processing was done in Garage Band. Top photo by me. Bottom photo by Cheryl Cipriani.

Podcast: The Magnificent Seven

Virtual Memories – season 3 episode 2 – The Magnificent Seven

Reading, walking, looking, dancing, listening, swimming, and writing: these are the activities organizing the life of this episode’s guest, Willard Spiegelman, author of Seven Pleasures: Essays on Ordinary Happiness! We talk about his wonderful book (go read it!), his addiction to ballroom dancing, how to find joy in the day-to-day world, why he hates book clubs, what Dallas, TX is like for a secular Philadelphia Jew, how he turned me on to one of my favorite novels, who his Desert Island Poets are, how he writes about the visual arts, why the world’s great novels are lost on the young, and what it was like to attend his 50th high school reunion. (Also, Harold Bloom crops up yet again; I really gotta try to get him on the show sometime. Boy, talk about the anxiety of influence . . .)

One of the best things about doing this podcast is that I get to meet some wonderful people. In this case, meeting with Willard over two afternoons (story to come) was like making a new old friend.

Enjoy the conversation! Then check out the archives for more!

Willard Spiegelman on The Virtual Memories Show

About our Guest

Willard Spiegelman is the Hughes Professor of English at Southern Methodist University. He also serves as editor-in-chief of Southwest Review, the third oldest continuously published literary quarterly in America. In 2005, Willard won the PEN/Nora Magid award for literary editing. In addition to Seven Pleasures, he’s also written or edited How Poets See the World: The Art of Description in Contemporary Poetry, Wordsworth’s Heroes, Imaginative Transcripts: Selected Literary Essays, Majestic Indolence: English Romantic Poetry and the Work of Art, The Didactic Muse: Scenes of Instruction in Contemporary American Poetry, and Love, Amy: The Selected Letters of Amy Clampitt. He writes about the arts for the Wall Street Journal. Oh, and he’s quite dapper.

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Credits: This episode’s music is This Charming Man by The Smiths. The conversation was recorded at Willard Spiegelman’s home in New York City, on a pair of AT2020 mics, feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. I recorded the other material on a Blue Yeti USB mic into Audacity. All editing and processing was done in Garage Band.

Another Year, In the Books: 2012

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“One of the pleasures of middle age — there aren’t many — lies in a growing appreciation for art that is urbane and refined. To be a man of the world is, in my mind, to be a courtly, music-loving intellectual living in Vienna or Prague during the final days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It is the last glimmering of a now vanished era . . .”

–Michael Dirda

It was another wonderful reading year for me, even if I sometimes feel like I’m an ape who’s trying to mimic the behavior of a cultured gentlereader. I know this isn’t the mode for everyone (esp. those of you who have social lives), but I’m awfully happy I get to live this way. Last year, I chronicled all the books I finished, but used a separate post to discuss 2011′s big reading project, Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time: First Movement. I didn’t have a major project this year, so you’re going to get some commentary on everydarnbook on The List. (Speaking of . . .)

As with last year, this writeup doesn’t include comics that I finished. I should note that, while I’ve had Chris Ware’s Building Stories on my desk since late September, I’ve been too . . . intimidated? something else? . . . to start it. Maybe that’ll be the next big read.

Meanwhile, there are more than 50 to discuss, so let’s get started!

The Sun Also Rises: I had the thought last January of reading a lot of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner. I may’ve been a little influenced by that meh Woody Allen flick, Midnight in Paris. Clearly, not as effective as the way Another Woman turned me on to Rilke, but hey. This time around, I found Hemingway’s prose flatter and less effective than I recalled. Nowadays, we’d chalk it up to writing for a screenplay rather than the printed word, but I guess that wasn’t a consideration back then.

The Learners: A day after that, I was wiped out with the flu. I stayed home from work and started reading The Learners, the sequel to book designer extraordinaire Chip Kidd’s first novel, The Cheese Monkeys. The book follows our lead character, Happy, out of art school and into his first design job in 1961. Bizarrely enough, considering how out-of-it I must have been, I managed to read this book in a few hours. I enjoyed it, mainly for the depiction of Happy’s worklife as a designer in that era (not exactly Mad Men). I wasn’t as interested in the plot, centering on Stanley Milgram‘s authority experiments, but I’m hoping to see a third book from Kidd as Happy finds his way in the world (and figures out his sexuality, the suppression of which is a key component of this and The Cheese Monkeys).

Money: A Suicide Note: A week later, I read Martin Amis’ Money, which I’d heard referred to as his greatest novel. I think London Fields trumps it, but they’re both awfully good. They’re also very difficult for me to recommend to people; Amis’ language is like lightning (at his peak, I think his prose is up there with Nabokov’s), but his characters are almost uniformly unlikeable and normal people seem to care about that. In my podcast conversation with Michael Dirda, we talked about the pleasure principle in reading and criticism. He praised Harold Brodkey’s The Runaway Soul, but said it so unremitting and humorless that no one could finish it, and contrasted that with the evil wit of William Gass’ The Tunnel. He made a comment about writing a book in which none of the characters were likable, and I said, “We should ask Martin Amis for tips on that.” That said, it’s an amazing novel, capturing the money-hungry ’80s in New York and London. And it was fun to read the brothel scene that Amis researched with Christopher Hitchens (whose Hitch-22: A Memoir was the close-out to last year’s post). Also, it seems like Alan Moore was cribbing from this when he wrote A Small Killing, a comic illustrated by Oscar Zarate.

Brideshead Revisited: Reading at tangents, I went from Martin Amis to Evelyn Waugh, an influence on his dad Kingsley. I read Waugh’s Scoop in late 2011 (following Hitchens’ recommendation) before moving on to his best-known novel, Brideshead Revisited. I had absolutely no idea what this book was about. For some reason, I thought it was going to be a very staid, mannered book. I really wasn’t expecting the ebullience of Sebastian Flyte and, once introduced to him, I wasn’t expecting the Catholic-Anglican conflict between the narrator and Sebastian’s sister, Julia. I was happy to have so much of Anthony Powell under my belt before reading this, even though Powell’s prose and story were far less unified than Waugh’s.

Stories of Anton Chekhov: My first great discovery of 2012 was Chekhov’s short fiction (Pevear & Volokhonsky translation). I’d apparently read Three Sisters back in my freshman year of college, probably for an acting class, but never got to Chekhov otherwise. I have so many lacunae in my reading, it’s embarrassing. I devoured this collection and will likely get around to his short novels and his plays in 2013. I was floored by the intensity and vividness of his short sketches, like The Huntsman and the seriously creepy Sleepy, while the longest piece in the book, A Boring Story, is an utter masterpiece. I’m in awe of Chekhov.

Tropic of Cancer: Looking back over my list, I honestly don’t remember reading this book for the bajillionth time. I’m guessing I thought it would be a good palate-cleanser, some familiarly gorgeous prose for me to fall back into after being swept up in Chekhov for 3 weeks. It’s also possible I just read too darned quickly sometime. I try not to read for volume, but it happens to the best of us sometimes.

Travesties: I read Tom Stoppard’s play in anticipation of seeing it performed in Princeton. We never got down there, because of work travel or some other excuse, but I was glad to read it. It’s a toughie to characterize, because of the Leninist stuff, the Wildean mode, the slapstick, the dead-end of Dadaism, and more, but I was wowed by the ambition of it, and I’m a sucker for “all these famous figures happened to live in the same place at the same time, so who’s to say they never overlapped?”

Metropole: I read this one on a recommendation in Bookslut. It’s a forgotten novel about a linguistics professor from Hungary on his way to a conference who falls asleep, misses a connection, gets on a wrong airplane, and winds up in a strange city where he can’t understand the language. I had high hopes for this novel, but it draws out the drudgery of the professor’s life in a way that ground my interest into a nub. Going into it, my assumption was that the professor’s experience mirrors that of everyone who travels to Hungary from the west, since their language has virtually no connection to the Indo-European language groups. I spent a full week in Hungary a few years ago and managed to pick up only 5 or 6 words in that time. Anyway, I was hoping for more of the Kafkaesque out of this novel, I suppose, but I can understand how the time in which it was written (1970, during the endless days of the Cold War) dictated the sense of hopelessness that pervades it.

Inherent Vice: A Novel: I bailed on Thomas Pynchon’s last giganto-novel, Against the Day, a year or two ago. I was 50-60 pages into it and concluded that I wasn’t enjoying it and would never get around to finishing it. On a whim, I picked up this shorter novel last spring at a nearbyish new/used bookstore, Well Read. I figured this would be more Crying of Lot 49 than Gravity’s Rainbow. Little did I know it would be most similar to The Big Lebowski. I mean that in a good way. It’s a stoner detective novel set in LA in the ’60s, and the plot doesn’t quite add up, but the atmosphere is what it’s all about. While I was reading it, it struck me that Pynchon generally alternates his novels between “big” and “SoCal”: V. (big), Crying of Lot 49 (SoCal), Gravity’s Rainbow (big), Vineland (SoCal), Mason & Dixon (big), Against the Day (big), Inherent Vice (SoCal). The fact that those last two are out of sequence is clearly the sign that They’re up to something . . .

Coriolanus: Two reasons to take up this one: to prepare to catch the Ralph Fiennes movie version (which I haven’t seen yet), and because I was going to take a trip to Phoenix for a trade show that month and planned to see a Diamondbacks game. See, I try to keep a decent gap between the number of Shakespeare plays I’ve read and the number of MLB ballparks I’ve visited. You know how weird I am, so don’t act like this surprises you. Anyway, the play was minor on the Shakespeare scale, but does help illustrate why military men don’t tend to make good statesmen.

Family Happiness“: I read Tolstoy’s novella in anticipation of a St. John’s College alumni seminar in NYC. Sadly, I could only attend the pre-seminar coffee hour and not the conversation itself, due to a sick dog at home, but I did get to talk with the tutor who was running the show, and she followed up afterward to tell me how it went. It’s Tolstoy and it’s not religious, so you know it’s good. It’s about the ways in which one’s notions of love and romance change the longer one’s in a relationship. In this case, it’s a sad, 19th century version with a younger woman discovering the loss of romance as her marriage progresses. It’s a recurring theme, esp. with great European writers of that era, but it’s so artfully told, even in its inevitabilities, that Tolstoy makes it fresh.

The Living End: This was probably on an off-the-cuff recommendation from Harold Bloom, and was probably the book I least enjoyed in 2012. I stuck with it, violating my maxim, “life is too short for shitty novels,” because it was only 130 pages of large type, but I could’ve given this one a pass. It starts off well, depicting the comic life of a Jewish liquor store owner before he’s murdered in a hold-up. From there, it transforms into a story of how grotesquely unfair the afterlife is, how vengeful God (the scriptural God) is, and why the end of the world can’t come soon enough. It was pretty relentless in its sections in hell, which is the point, I get it, but I just found it an unworthy book, especially after starting off so well. I’ll try one of Stanley Elkin’s other books sometime to see which part was the aberration.

Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness: William Styron’s memoir about depression and suicidal ideation was probably not what I should’ve been reading in a generic hotel room in Arizona during a business trip. Turns out he was having a bad reaction to Halcion. I understand how terrible that is, but when I was having an ugly CNS reaction to an antibiotic I’d been prescribed, it only took 3-4 days for me to realize that that’s what was happening and that my wife and coworkers were NOT actually trying to poison me. Either I’m more self-aware than Styron, or I spent a lot more time than he did reading about adverse events from prescription drugs.

Uncle Vanya: I thought the movie Cold Souls was terrible, but it led me to read Uncle Vanya, so I guess that’s not too bad. More Chekhov, again revolving around the country life and the sense of wasting one’s life in that setting. The only good scene in that Giamatti movie was when he rehearses a scene from the play after having his soul extracted, and attacks it with a joie de vivre totally inappropriate to the tragic setting. Seriously, avoid that movie, but read this play.

Solaris: This was the first Stanislaw Lem book I’ve read. I’d seen the Steven Soderbergh film version, and it was interesting to see how some of the book’s “rules” for the mysterious apparitions were removed or softened for the sake of the drama. Ultimately, I found it a bit too frustrating, in terms of the Macguffin, but it’s a beautiful piece of writing about the ineffability of experience. Just as we can’t understand what Solaris is “thinking,” we also fail to understand those closest to us.

Meditations: I bought Marcus Aurelius’ book after seeing The Silence of the Lambs back in 1992 or thereabouts, and only got around to reading it 20 years later. There were moments when I thought, “Well, it’s kinda easy to adopt Stoicism when you’re the emperor of Rome and not one of its subjects or slaves,” but I figured that was sour grapes. It’s written as self-advice (not self-help), and not all of us are going to address the Roman senate or lead an army, but his lessons, and his general vibe about leading a good life, are pretty useful. I need to reconsider him in relation to all that Montaigne I was reading a few years ago.

Austerlitz: The only W.G. Sebald I read before this year were a few essays in On the Natural History of Destruction. I don’t recall much of that reading, beyond the issue of trying to reconcile the desire for revenge against Germany after the war with leaving children to suffer. Austerlitz is the first of two Sebald novels I read in 2012. I was unprepared for his curious method of writing, that combination of compelling first-person travelogue and not-quite-documentary images, his peculiar mingling of the real and unreal. The story within the novel, which Jacques Austerlitz relates to the narrator, is haunting, in the same way that both characters haunt the Continent in the decades following the war. I bought the rest of Sebald’s novels after this, but his premature death (car accident in 2001) may be the greatest literary loss of our time.

Selected Stories of Flannery O’Connor / Wise Blood (re-read): That brings me to the life-changing moment I had at the beginning of summer. I read a number of O’Connor’s short stories for the 4-day Piraeus seminar at St. John’s College. I wrote about the Piraeus in last year’s write-up, in my entry on Wise Blood (which I re-read before the seminar). O’Connor’s fiction was a grotesque revelation, and would’ve been reward enough, now that I can see her threads weaving through modern American fiction and storytelling, but the long weekend in Annapolis re-energized me, brought a new focus to my reading, introduced me to new friends, and reminded me of the value of The Conversation. (The stories we read for the seminar were Good Country People, A Good Man is Hard to Find, The Artificial N*****, Everything That Rises Must Converge, The Lame Shall Enter First, and Parker’s Back. I oughtta read The Violent Bear It Away in 2013.) Check out the podcasts I recorded during that trip with David Townsend and Tom May!

Rabbit, Run: My first Updike. As I wrote on Facebook, “My big hangup was the sheer poetic beauty of the prose and how it didn’t really fit with any of the characters’ perspectives. That is, Rabbit wouldn’t have seen the world as beautifully as the narrative describes it, but the narrative often lapses into the limited perspectives of its characters. It’ll drop into the more immediate tones of Rabbit’s wife, Ruth, or Rabbit himself, and all the gorgeous prose drops away. It felt like Updike was showing off with those more poetic passages, or he didn’t yet know how to integrate that with his characters’ limited visions.” I later expanded on that in a note to a pal of mine, “There are some beautiful sentences in there, but the narrative voice makes little to no sense. Sometimes it’s immediately in the characters’ heads, but it begins making poetic descriptions of phenomena that the characters themselves couldn’t possibly formulate. So it felt like cheating/showing off: ‘I’m going to get inside these characters’ heads, but then I’m going to make intensely beautiful observations because I’ve got a bunch of them in my notebook and want to get them out.’ Presumably, he got better as a writer, but I was shocked by the clumsiness of that first book.” So now you know where I stand. I have the whole Rabbit Angstrom 4-book omnibus, but will I ever get around to those when there are so many other books with more promise?

Housekeeping: I may be the only person who read Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead without having read her first novel. Enough people have praised it over the years (including my first podcast guest, Ann Rivera) that I decided to give it a read. They’re right. It’s fantastic. Robinson’s beautiful prose evokes the fragility of home life, the disintegration of family. It also has its roots in Flannery O’Connor, although I’m sure a smarter writer than I could explain how Robinson’s Calvinism leads to a different style than O’Connor’s (southern) Catholicism.

O, How the Wheel Becomes it!: This was another one-day read (“one-evening,” to be precise). It was Anthony Powell’s first novel after he finished A Dance to the Music of Time. It’s slight, but it parodies/slags the literary fiction and academia scenes in the UK. And I was happy to see the guy who created X. Trapnel return to goofing on the publishing world.

Take Time for Paradise: Americans and Their Games: Americans and Their Games: I don’t read a lot of nonfiction books; I prefer long-form articles instead. I guess you could count Darkness Visible and Meditations as nonfiction, but this is the first one on the list to deal with a non-memoir subject. One of my fellow Piraeus members suggested I read this book by the late baseball commissioner Bart Giamatti. It’s about the nature of sport, what it says about America and Americans, and, um, numerology. That part only comes up in the final section, but Giamatti sorta ascribes a kabbalistic significance to some of the numbers in baseball. As a whole, the book was a bit dry, in an Aristotelian way, but I enjoyed his reminiscences about playing baseball with his family, as well as the seriousness with which he could approach play.

The Aeneid (tr. Fagles): And this is where I went into overdrive. After that Piraeus weekend at St. John’s, I asked one of my tutors for a mini-curriculum of the Romans. I’d given them short shrift, deriding them as pastiches of the Greeks. Within a few minutes of my return to Annapolis, I realized what an unfair characterization this was. So I started educating myself in Roman literature and history, beginning with Virgil. Y’know what? The Aeneid IS a pastiche of Homer’s two epic poems, but Virgil’s a great enough artist to create something new out of that. The comparison that came to me after finishing the poem was Homer::Virgil as Jordan::Kobe. I don’t think Kobe could have been so successful without having MJ’s history behind him, but he managed to reach some pretty lofty heights once he incorporated that example.

Yeah, the Aeneid is propaganda for the Roman Empire, but Dido’s suicide left me breathless (the retroactive justification for the war with Carthage), Camilla’s Final Hour had one of the funniest images I’ve ever come across (her father, when she was an infant, sent her to safety by tying her to his spear and throwing her across the Amasenus river so he could pick her up after escaping the Volscians), and everybody needs a creation epic, right?

The Stranger (re): I re-read this after finishing the Sartre chapter in Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia (coming up soon). I gave Camus’ fiction pretty short shrift over the years, too, ever since making a dumb comment about him back in college. Reading him now, and trying to get an understanding of Algeria, I find him much more compelling. I’m always glad to find out how dumb I’ve been.

I Totally Meant to Do That: This is the first book I read specifically for my podcast, as I was interviewing the author, Jane Borden. It’s an enjoyable memoir about a North Carolina debutante, her transformation into a Brooklyn hipster, and how she came to understand home. Check out the podcast!

The Early History of Rome (Books I-V) / Rome and Italy (Books VI-X): After Virgil, I took up the first 10 books of Livy’s history of Rome. Seriously, I knew very little about this, so it was both informative and ridiculously entertaining. Livy covers Rome’s founding through 293 b.c. in these books (2 volumes from Penguin). It’s a cliche to say that knowledge of history informs the present, but the transition from kingdom to republic, driven by the growth in inequality between the high-born and the “peasants,” is awfully pertinent. As with all good histories, it’s replete with examples of our unchanging nature, demonstrated by our politics and (including the original story of the aforementioned Coriolanus). I’d put this in my must-read list (and I plan to read the subsequent surviving books in 2013).

Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts: It took me four years to work my way through this collection of biographical sketches/essays by Clive James. Finishing this book made me happier/prouder than any other book on the list. It’s about 800 pages long, and here’s the structure: biographical sketch, quotation from the subject, essay by James that may or may not be about the subject. The book focuses on the culture that was destroyed by the great wars and dictatorships of the 20th century, with Vienna as its locus point. James strives to remind us of all that we once had, and was lost. But to describe it like that is to miss the point. This book is an encyclopedia of one of the last cultured men, and its biographical subjects range from Viennese Jews like Stefan Zweig to Coco Chanel to Miles Davis. I read the book sequentially — which means, alphabetically — but it’s really intended to be dipped into anywhere that catches your fancy. My problem is that I’m sure I would have glossed over some interesting sketches/essays had I read it that way. And in fact, the piece that I think provides a key to the whole book is the essay about Paul Muratov, a Russian art historian who is (almost) utterly forgotten. If there’s any one book I’d recommend above all others in this post, it’s Cultural Amnesia. Treat yourself.

The Sense of an Ending: This short Julian Barnes novel was a Kindle loan from my public library. It relies on some really obtuse behavior by a couple of characters in order to keep its mystery going and deliver on its main themes, that memory is unreliable and people can be real pricks in college.

Sea, Swallow Me And Other Stories: This is a short story collection by a guy I knew in college, Craig Gidney. I enjoyed some of them far more than I wanted to, because I am of course jealous of any of my contemporaries who have been able to finish writing anything, much less achieved publication. The book’s firmly in the fantasy genre, and many of the stories come from a gay black male perspective. Having published Samuel R. Delany’s books once upon a time, I didn’t have any squeamishness about that, but I thought you’d like to know. Her Spirit Hovering, about a man who can’t get over his mother, is a blast. (But I really didn’t like the final story, Catch Him By the Toe, which felt like a Twilight Zone / comic book origin story.)

An Open Book: Coming of Age in the Heartland: I read Michael Dirda’s 2003 memoir in preparation for our podcast interview. Having (his version of) the details of his early life under my belt helped to keep me from falling into any “I’m not worthy!” moments during our talk. Not that Mr. Dirda’s intimidating in person, by any means, but I’ve enjoyed his book reviews and columns for decades and feared I would ask him something like, “Why are you so awesome?” a la Chris Farley with Paul McCartney in that SNL skit. The book was pretty enchanting, even though I hoped for a bit more of the “how I became so awesome” material about his time at the Washington Post, rather than “this was the girl I liked in college,” but I was happy to learn more about someone whose work I’ve dug for so long. Check out the podcast!

The Metamorphoses of Ovid (tr. Mandelbaum): Then it was back to the Romans! As I wrote earlier, there are awful, gaping holes in my reading. It’s one of the main reasons why I read so little contemporary fiction; there are too many great works of the past for me to catch up on. As I look over the list, it seems that, of the 51 books I finished in 2012, only 14 of them (27%) were published from 2000 on, and only 7 came out since 2009. I’m kicking myself for not getting around to Ovid until now. It’s like a kaleidoscope viewing of the Greek and Roman myths, with transformation as the common thread running through them. Does it, like the Aeneid, become propaganda when Julius Caesar gets woven into the end of the poem? Sure, but it’s forgivable, when so many of the other myths are of tribal self-identification. Anyway, it’s a glorious work, and I wish I had read it in my teens, rather than the pulp science fiction and comics I was raised on.

The Good Soldier: Michael Dirda praised the living heck out of this Ford Madox Ford novel from 1915, so I gave it a read soon after our conversation. The narrator, an who was seemingly unaware of the affair going on between his wife and a British captain, tells the story of passion and suicide in a very disjointed manner. It’s not right to say he’s an unreliable narrator, but his elliptical way of getting to the heart of the story and his willful blindness to what’s going on around him never seem like cheap plot devices; rather, they’re both essential his character and indicative of a certain sense of propriety in that era. The narrator’s casualness and disjointedness are actually intensely worked out by Ford, so that mere asides turn into harbingers of what the narrator calls “the saddest story I have ever heard.” It’s a wonderful novel, which I’ll likely return to in a year or two to catch the significance in all the seemingly insignificant details.

King Lear (re-read): It was a re-read for seminar at St. John’s homecoming weekend. And if you haven’t read King Lear yet, then why are you wasting time reading my bazillion-word blog-post? Most of the seminar group was from the same class, so I was an outsider, but we had a good conversation about the nature(s) of madness, the impossibility of retirement, and where there’s any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts.

Capital: I’m a fan of John Lanchester’s novel, The Debt to Pleasure, and the financial writing he’s been doing since the crash, so I gave his mega-novel from 2011 a shot during a business trip to Madrid. It tells the story of a number of people living on a street in London where property values have been skyrocketing. There are multi-generational long-timers, executives from the City, Pakistani shopkeepers, a rising star soccer player, and the various people with whom their lives intersect, including a Banksy-like artist, an illegal immigrant working as a meter maid, a Polish handyman, and more. It’s ambitious in its attempt at showing how insane money has gotten in our financial centers, and how it warps the lives of the rich and poor. The need to drive the plot over 600 or so pages means that the prose isn’t as gorgeous as in Debt to Pleasure, and it may not reach Bonfire of the Vanities-level zeitgeist-ery, but it’s still a good read.

Chess Story: And that brings me to Stefan Zweig. I first read about Zweig at the end (naturally) of Cultural Amnesia. Clive James largely dismissed Zweig’s fiction and instead focused on his biographical essays and his memoir, The World of Yesterday. As with many artists in James’ book, I made a note to get to him “later on.” Then I read an appreciation of Zweig in the New Yorker by Leo Carey that focused on his fiction (both writers also focus on Zweig’s 1942 suicide in Petropolis, Brazil) and decided to give his last novella a shot before the flight home from Madrid.

I sat in the airport terminal completely riveted by this slim book (80 pages). As with The Leopard in 2011, I began re-reading the book almost immediately, in awe of the storytelling, the ease of language and symbols, the utter tension of the work. I must have given out half a dozen copies of this to friends to read. The story is about a veritable idiot savant of a chess master who travels on a steamer from New York to Argentina. Our narrator wants to see him play, and contrives to get him into a match with a high-stakes amateur on the ship. A mysterious passenger offers some help during a match, and that’s when things really take off.

It’s so mind-blowingly good and compact, that I found myself buying up a number of Zweig’s other works (he only wrote one novel, otherwise sticking to the novella for his fiction) to see how they measured up. (Keep reading; you’ll find out.) But if you’re looking for a great (and quick) read, go buy Chess Story right away. Skip the introduction, because it gives away some things that it’s better to uncover in the novella itself.

I have a million more things to say about Zweig, but this isn’t the place for them, because I’ll never finish otherwise.

Bartleby & Co.: The New Yorker also tipped me off to this book by Enrique Vila-Matas. It’s ostensibly a novel about “Writers of the No,” authors who quit writing or never finished their work. I thought that would be right up my alley, never having started, but the book was disappointing. The concept was fine, but there’s not enough novel-ing going on in it. The scenes from the narrator’s life, the hints at the bigger world around him, just drop away and the book we’re left with isn’t substantial enough to make up for not knowing “what happened.”

Seven Pleasures: Essays on Ordinary Happiness: I read this book by Willard Spiegelman in preparation for a pending podcast interview. (There’s a story about that, of course.) On the face of it — a book with the chapters, Reading, Walking, Looking, Dancing, Listening, Swimming, and Writing — I thought I was getting a literary self-help book. It turns out to be a Montaigne-esque series of essays: more meditation than memoir, and certainly not self-help. I enjoyed it a great deal, perhaps because I could relate to so many of Mr. Spiegelman’s experiences, even if I’m too chicken to learn to dance.

The Emigrants : I read this W.G. Sebald book over the course of the first day of the Hurricane Sandy blackout. It’s written in the same mode as Austerlitz; a first-person narrative (with photos) about the lives of four people driven away from Germany. It’s like a precursor to Austerlitz, but I found it a little less haunting, if only because one of the titular emigrants traveled to America and some of the narrator’s travels overlapped with highways I’ve traveled.

Fifth Business / The Manticore / World of Wonders: The blackout was 8 days long, and I managed to read much of Robertson Davies’ The Deptford Trilogy in that time. It was pretty great to have no power, no way of getting in touch with the office, and nothing to do but read and sit by the fire. I read Fifth Business more than 20 years ago, but remembered almost none of it. It’s hard to describe the story without sounding prosaic. In a sense, it’s a melodrama about the magic behind our lives. See? The first book is the best of the series, but the whole trilogy is a joy, even the weird Jungian analysis of The Manticore. It’s about life in a provincial Canadian town, and saints, and magicians, and stage-craft, and childhood guilt, and a million other things. Based on my experience with it, I recommend this as a great wintertime read by a fire.

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym: I can only hope that Poe’s one novel was intended as a parody of sea-faring fantastic tales, because I couldn’t make heads nor tails of this.

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War: Awesomely entertaining. Max Brooks’ novel about a zombie apocalypse and the living’s response to it is told as an oral history, 10 years after major hostilities have ceased. The history is told by survivors from around the world, and the International Relations aspect of it is part of why it’s so great. The story telescopes from the personal to the international/global. Some of the chapters are heartbreaking, others are terrifically creepy, and it all adds up to a really good book. Sadly, it’ll be a movie next year, and that’ll ruin everything; it’s a slow zombie menace, not a fast zombie one as the movie trailer seems to show, and that runs counter to what makes the book so darned creepy. If we’re still dividing literature into genres, then this is my zombie/thriller/horror recommendation of the year.

Journey Into the Past (New York Review Books Classics): My second Stefan Zweig novella wasn’t as good as my first, but that’s okay. This one’s more of a romantic melodrama, while Chess Story was a heavy-duty psychological crucible built around a chessboard. This one’s about the impossibility of fixing love in time, or of recapturing love we once had. While the emotional states are convincing, the story itself simply wasn’t compelling to me. Also, no zombies.

How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III: I read this in preparation for a podcast with one of my favorite contemporary writers, Ron Rosenbaum. (That’ll post shortly.) Ron’s written great articles over the years, and his previous books, Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil and The Shakespeare Wars: Clashing Scholars, Public Fiascoes, Palace Coups, are both worth reading. This one focuses on The Bomb and just how close we are to deliberate or accidental nuclear destruction. It’s a bit policy heavy, but Ron makes it readable and pretty darned engaging. He brings some literary meditation to the topic, but this one’s first and foremost about the threat of nuclear war, not Ron’s usual approach, which is (he said, reductively) to analyze our interpretations of a phenomenon and see what they say about us, rather than go after the heart of the phenomenon itself. It’s an important book, but given the head-in-the-sand nature of our civilization, we’ll likely ignore it until it’s too late.

Selected Stories: A bunch of these cleaned the meh taste of Journey Into the Past. They’re all novellas, almost all told to our narrator by another party, and several of them will break your heart. I nearly plotzed over the story of Buchmendel, the Galician Jewish book dealer who gets into trouble during WWI by not having any idea that WWI is going on. The romantic melodramas of Letter from an Unknown Woman, Fantastic Night and Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman show that Zweig can employ pitched emotional states while still delivering a devastating story. After Chess Story, pick this one up.

The Silence of Trees: I read the debut novel by Valya Dudycz Lupescu in preparation for another podcast interview. We tried recording in mid-December, but she had just done the planes, trains and automobiles circuit to get from Chicago to Philadelphia and wasn’t at her most coherent. We’ve rescheduled for my next Chicago trip. It’s a novel about a Ukrainian-American matriarch who has suppressed her pre-American life from her family, and how she deals with that as she grows old. It opened my eyes to some of the non-Jewish victims of WWII, and how terrible the conditions were after it ended. There’s a certain lack of psychology to the narrator, which I THINK is a symptom of the character’s suppression; I’ll ask Valya about it in April when we record.

Night Train: Martin Amis tries to tell a police procedural about a suspicious suicide. The narrator, a boxy female detective, has to have a literary background in order to accommodate some of Amis’ prose, but he reins it in somewhat. It’s . . . not great. I mean, “great” is London Fields and Money. This one has some interesting observations in it, and the cloud of unknowing around the suicide/murder is a neat literary device, but I assume he was trying to make some sorta gender statement by naming his female narrator Mike Hoolihan. Give this one a pass, unless you’re on a serious Amis binge.

1984: I ended the year with Orwell’s final novel, which I’d last read 20 years earlier. It’s a lot more vivid to me now, but that’s the nature of re-reading as a grown-up, I suppose. I don’t think I really got the perils of Communism/Totalitarianism when I was younger. Reading it now, I think the real horror isn’t the Thought Police or Room 101, but the crumbling cigarettes, the artificial gin, the dull razors and all the other minutiae of colorless life on Airstrip One. (I was also struck this time by the awkwardness with which Orwell introduced some of the concepts of the book, but I think that’s typical of a non-science-fiction writer trying to work in that genre.)

So there we are: 52 weeks, 51 books! I’m in the midst of Bleak House right now, and am putting together a selection of stuff I’d like to get to in 2013. Most of those pulls are longer works, so don’t expect another giganto-post like this one next year!

In case you want a ranking, here are my top 10 of new reads I finished in 2012:

  1. Chess Story – Stefan Zweig
  2. Cultural Amnesia – Clive James
  3. Short Stories – Anton Chekhov (tr. Pevear & Volokhonsky)
  4. The Aeneid – Virgil (tr. Fagles)
  5. A whole ton of Flannery O’Connor
  6. Austerlitz – WG Sebald
  7. History of Rome, books I-X – Livy
  8. Selected Stories – Stefan Zweig (Pushkin Press ed.)
  9. World War Z – Max Brooks
  10. Money – Martin Amis

The Western Canon

Our library is almost complete; once our handyman finishes putting in the flooring and does some touch-up work, which he thinks he can pull off in the next two weeks, we can move some furniture down there and get to reading. And maybe writing and recording some more podcasts. But mainly reading.

I plan on moving our dining room table, a solid and non-descript Ikea affair, downstairs to serve as my big-ass desk/work-table. Here’s the bookcase that will be situated right above the center of the table.

A Few of My Favorite Things

I thought I’d put some of the good stuff right in front of me as a reminder of how much I have to learn. Click through the pic for a breakdown of what’s there.

Unrequired Reading: MARCH!

It’s time for another month’s worth of tweets and funny links, dear readers! Remember, you can keep up with these more easily by following my feed at twitter.com/groth18!

The Things He Carried (he being @acontinuouslean)

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Even in @ArcadiaBroadway I am. yfrog.com/gy1r6hvj

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Great @michaelbierut piece on 15 years of design-work for United.

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EVERYONE has trouble finding their way around #neworleans

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Wisdom from #TomFord: (I still wear shorts, but I’m in the ‘burbs, so hey.)

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NYC: dancing in the ’70s wasn’t all Soul Train

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@jeremoss lays a palimpsest over 7th Ave. bet. 47 & 48: #vanishingNY

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The Arab world’s greatest contribution to society? #Coffee! #justmyopinion

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My top symptom of depression is when I’m convinced I’d fail a #TuringTest. Spambots have it easier than I do

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Kindasorta pet sounds (via @bldgblog) #bringthenoise

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@thebookslut (whom I’m hoping to interview soon for my podcast) on writers and their politics: #KnutthePolarNazi

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I gotta get around to reading #Lanark sometime, since a trusted pal gave it to me a while ago: #andIshouldvisitGlasgow

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Good thing they didn’t goof on @DeadliestCatch: #nabokov

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Explaining the Northern Lights: #auroraborealis (make sure you watch this time-lapse video that shows up at the end)

The Aurora from Terje Sorgjerd on Vimeo.

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Why do people get angry? #theydriveinNJ #iwouldhaveaskedforHappyGilmore

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Cutest thing ever: greyhound puppy edition #greyhound #sickeninglycute

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Mallrats of 1990: I was no great shakes back then either: #napoleondynamite

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RT @radleybalko – Prosecutor: “You bet your ass I ain’t gonna be mean to Willie Nelson.”

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I did a #screenhijack of the electronic billboard at the Annapolis Mall in ’94 and posted some @danielclowes messages.

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I’m loving me these Out of Print t-shirts: #nakedlunch #mobydick

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“Militant” bombing of bus stop in #Jerusalem: #goodthingitsnotterrorism

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GREAT piece on the big problem with Big Idea books: #jointheclub #iwouldntjoinanyclubthatwouldtakemeasamember

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Holi isn’t the same without #karlpilkington #anidiotabroad

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The (Frank) King of Gift Shops: #gasolinealley

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Fear & Loathing in LV, 40 years later. #hst

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I really gotta get to re-reading #thucydides sometime. http://bit.ly/i6mQmJ

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Coincidentally, I have #Impromptu coming in from @netflix tomorrow: #chopin #liszt

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Cheech & Chong should sue for royalties: #nicedreams

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How to kill a zombie: #themoreyouknow

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No pic of Spencer Tracy playing Ultimate Frisbee? (thanks, @kottke!) #katherinehepburn

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Hey, @kottke! I see your #katherinehepburn and raise you a #farrahfawcett!#sk8ergirl

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Swaziland’s king faces strikes! He should name Richard E. Grant as his successor! #withnailandswazis #wahwah

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Speaking of #richardegrant, let’s have lunch! #whenisthenextbookcomingout

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Is @gsk about to relive #officespace? #ibelieveyouhavemystapler

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Neoconservatives: advocates of a new managerial state. Also, kindasorta fascist?

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@simondoonan on the flattering adjacent and the $12k jacket: #pythonsareexpensive

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@nytimes to conduct digital experiment on Canadians! #greatwhitepaywall #blamecanada

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@gregbeato offers an ode to the mall: #somehowradioshackisstillinbusiness

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Who watches the watch, man? #bespokewatch

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George Michael’s beard: Iron and Wine covers “One More Try”

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My cholesterol dropped 60 points within a year after I got a dog (who needed regular walkies) #gogreyhound

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The bank is closed, bitch! #bankshot #hoopitup #timduncan

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I was so hoping @therealshockg was part of this article on the N. Korean Digital Underground. #humptyhump

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Henry Miller: Brooklynite #tropicofhipster

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Should I take my #coffee more seriously? done and done! #pourover #caffeinedreams

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Unreal City #dubai #moneychangeseverything

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Before/Ater palimpsest pictures of earthquake & tsunami damage in Japan. #disastersunday

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Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, 25 years later. #disastersunday #atomicsafari

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Louisiana gulf coast ecology, post-Katrina & BP: #disastersunday

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Awesome Sam Lipsyte piece on cheating and the new #Monopoly. #goreadTheAsk #nownownow #SamLipsyte

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I’m very happy that there’s a Montaigne renaissance going on. #nowforplutarch

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Via @AlexBalk of @theawl, an encomium for Local Hero, one of the most wonderful movies ever.

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Whither the big box? Wither, the big box!

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Chuck Person had something to do with DEFENSE? I call shenanigans. #firsttimeforeverything #nba #lalakers

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My God, it’s full of stars” #afghanair (whole set here)

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The Torah is wheat, the Bible is not Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth. #itrynottodiscussreligiontoooften

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What happens to the Aerotropolises that fail? #justwondering

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New Orleans documentaries, in black and white. #mardigras

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Financial Times = Scientology: “every time you reach one level, you realize there’s another, more expensive level awaiting you.”

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100 Days of Designitude: via @designobserver

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V5 Precise is my office-pen of choice, but I use Pilot G-2 05 for travel: retractable, less leak-prone. #mypenishuge

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Who needs therapy? Here and here – #iprobablydo #drugsandvideogames

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The bottom of the world: beautiful pictures from Antarctica! thx, @in_focus!

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I wondered what became of Mats Wilander: #havegamewilltravel #bywinnebago

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I gotta get out west to In-N-Out and hit up that secret menu. #bestburgerever

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I’ve pretty much bailed on contempo fiction. Does it still suck?

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NYer interview with Tom Stoppard about @arcadiabroadway. #whatiscarnalembrace

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Yay! Drugs cost nil to discover! No wonder R&D productivity is falling apart and FDA approvals are at record lows!

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How To End A Conversation“: I usually feign death.

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I guess I have to catch up on those American Masters docs, huh? #pbs #americanmasters #lovedLOVEDtheschultzone

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“This could be the greatest critical roundtable in Comics Journal history.” #dilbert #noseriouslydilbert

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Ron Rosenbaum on the man who questioned the bomb. #youdroppedabombonme

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#charliesheen via #wittgenstein via @walterkirn

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I used to play the Journey vid just so I could kill #steveperry. #videogamedeaths #nosinistar?

Unrequired Reading: November 19, 2010

I didn’t get a chance to check in on my Google Reader while I was in New Orleans this week, so when I got home last night, I discovered that there were 4,082 items stacked up and waiting for me. Here are some of them.

I’ll have the Bordeaux

Two years ago, I wrote about Montaigne’s library tower, which he describes in one of my favorite essays, Of Three Kinds of Association. I keep a vision of that room in mind anytime I think about knocking down our house and rebuilding, although I’m pretty sure local zoning laws won’t permit a tower like the one in Bordeaux. The place has been a sort of Library of Babel to me, the non-existent room that holds everything I can’t wait to read.

Imagine my surprise when I found out the tower is still standing and open to tours! Looks like I know where my next overseas vacation will be! (It’ll likely be a better trip than the one I wanted to take to the isle of Jura to see Orwell’s last home.)

What It Is: 12/7/09

What I’m reading: I finished Up in the Air last week, and enjoyed the heck out of it. I’m still sifting through my impressions of the book as a time capsule of the end of the ’90′s. It was published in 2001, just a few months before 9/11. While that event’s obviously (to me) the defining moment of our decade, the book is also informed by views of data, privacy, and Invisible Webs that seem antiquated only 8 years later. I think I’m going to re-read this one in the next weeks and try to write a little more about it.

During a conversation we had on Sunday, Samuel R. Delany mentioned to me that the introduction to his essay collection Longer Views contains a neat discussion about how Montaigne’s Apology for Raymond Sebond connects to the rest of M.’s essays, so I gave that one a read. (For those of you who haven’t been following this blog religiously and for years, the Apology is a 180-page piece in the midst of Montaigne’s generaly much shorter essays, and is so dissimilar in theme and content to the others that I was left completely flummoxed by it. Here are parts 1, 2, 3 and 4 of my ramblings on that one.) The writer of the introduction, Ken James, seems to think that M. changed his mind over that mammoth essay, but fro what I recall, the Apology was a commission, and it felt more like M. was stuck having to defend something he didn’t particularly believe. Why don’t you go give the Apology for Raymond Sebond a read and get back to me with your thoughts?

What I’m listening to: Dave Rawlings Machine’s A Friend of a Friend, a lot.

What I’m watching: Pootie Tang, which was far funnier than I expected. Still terrible, but pretty funny.

What I’m drinking: Desert Juniper & Q-Tonic

What Rufus & Otis are up to: Trying to fit together in the one-dog crate again. I had a Sunday appt. (cleaning a small section of Chip Delany’s apartment) and Amy had to work all weekend, so we had to delay Otis’ debut on the Sunday morning Wawayanda park greyhound hike for another week. Grr.

Where I’m going: Nowhere special.

What I’m happy about: Getting to see some old pals this weekend.

What I’m sad about: Missing the Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival this weekend, but my visa’s not up to date, so there’s no way I could’ve made it to Brooklyn.

What I’m worried about: Contracting hantavirus from trying to clean Delany’s apartment.

What I’m pondering: What book I’ll pick up next.

Pom0-fer

Gil in his 20s couldn’t have imagined that he’d one day put a thousand-plus-page Thomas Pynchon novel back on the shelf and think, “I will never get around to reading this.” He also couldn’t have imagined that he’d spend years reading Montaigne’s essays and, upon finishing that thousand-plus-page volume, think, “I have to go back and start this from the beginning.”

But there you are. It’s the same theme you read from me a dozen times before: As I’ve grown older, I have less and less interest in contemporary fiction. Especially the (poorly defined) postmodern stuff.

I was quite a pomo in my college days, but I’ve learned to appreciate the merits of a, well, traditional lifestyle in my later years. Unlike other college-era decisions, this one had little to do with trying to piss off my parents. I think rather I had a desire to be New. I wanted to treat This Very Moment as an unprecedented one, unconstrained by past rules and laws. I imagined that novels had to be Encyclopedic in order to capture the world.

In short, I was a bullshit artist.

In grad school I started wending my way back to the beginnings of literature — as well as science & math, politics & society, and philosophy & religion, not to mention poetry, but I’m still a sucker for novels — and began to understand how much of modern writing was merely an echo of the trends, themes and devices that were in use nearly from the beginning.

Still, the occasion of this LA Times piece on the 61 essential postmodern reads interested me a little, at least in an 0-fer kinda way. (There’s also a good 2-part interview with John O’Brien (1 and 2), the publisher of The Dalkey Archive. My tastes and interest have diverged pretty far from Mr. O’Brien’s mission, but I respect his vision for the press, his tenacity, and his attempt to justify publishing such esoterically unreadable works as Carole Maso’s AVA. It’s almost like the Bizarro World version of the Criterion Collection’s decision to put out a high-end version of Michael Bay’s Armageddon.)

Unlike previous times I’ve broken down literary lists for an 0-fer post, I found that I needed to granulate this one a little more finely. In addition to “Read it,” “Read something by the author,” “0-fer” and “Who?”, I found that there were a bunch of books on this list that I started and never finished. Rather than put them in the “Read something by” list, I decided to add “Started, never finished.” It’s probably meaningful that this list has so many books that fall into that category. I should probably add “Will never attempt to finish” and “Why did I waste my time with this?” or “Read, but regret”, but no need to go overboard. I’ll just make little annotations on some of ‘em instead.

Without further ado:

READ IT

  • New York Trilogy – Paul Auster – WHY?!
  • Labyrinths - Jorge Luis Borges
  • Naked Lunch – William S. Burroughs – this appreciation of it will make you not want to read it
  • If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler – Italo Calvino – I like Invisible Cities more, but it was my first experience with Calvino and the book was given to me by a high school teacher who meant a lot to me
  • House of Leaves – Mark Danielewski – did have some genuinely creepy sections, but also some useless typographical gimmicks and descents into unreadability
  • The Man in the High Castle – Philip K. Dick – I gotta reread this sometime
  • The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne – high school; it’s on my Kindle
  • Absalom! Absalom! – William Faulkner – the favorite book of one of my best friends
  • “Metamorphosis” – Franz Kafka
  • Pale Fire – Vladimir Nabokov – whoa, nelly, what a mind-blowingly wonderful book . . . and Mary McCarthy agrees with me!
  • Gravity’s Rainbow – Thomas Pynchon – I liked it less when I reread it a few years ago, but I dug the Rilkean segments more; it’s sorta like how I was all into Rorschach when I read The Watchmen as a teen, but feel more sympathy for the Night Owl now.
  • The Counterlife – Philip Roth – reread it a year or two ago; might be my least favorite of his Zuckerman books
  • Hamlet – William Shakespeare
  • Maus I & II – Art Spiegelman
  • Slaughterhouse-Five- Kurt Vonnegut – “There’s a time and a place for everything, children, and that’s college!”
  • Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace – I’m glad that I finished this book, if only because it enables me to warn people away from reading it, if they’re on the fence. That said, some people consider it the most important book in their lives; those people tend not to be friends of mine, so hey

STARTED, NEVER FINISHED

  • A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius – Dave Eggers – bored me silly on a biz trip in 2000
  • Hopscotch – Julio Cortazar – all my pomo friends tell me it’s amazing, but I gave up when it occurred to me that it should’ve been printed in the same font as my old Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books
  • Everything Is Illuminated – Jonathan Safran Foer – I think the sections with the eastern European guy narrating were just text that was run through a thesaurus, with deliberately clunky words chosen to replace the regular ones; I quit after 50 pages
  • JR – William Gaddis – I’ll probably go back and give this a shot someday
  • The Tunnel – William Gass – I will never go back and give this a shot, despite how beautifully some of it is written, which is why I recently gave it away to someone
  • Edwin Mullhouse – Steven Millhauser – one of David Gates’ favorite books, and something I just need to make time for; I promise I’ll get back to it, not least because of its similarities to Pale Fire
  • The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy – Laurence Sterne – it’s on my Kindle

READ SOMETHING BY THE AUTHOR

  • The Atrocity Exhibition – J.G. Ballard
  • Giles Goat-Boy – John Barth – I don’t believe I ever finished anything of his, but I liked the jaunty style of The Floating Opera, as I recall
  • The Mezzanine – Nicholson Baker – I read Vox, and wondered why a guy with such a tin ear would write a novel comprised solely of dialogue
  • Great Jones Street – Don Delillo – don’t get me started
  • The Book of Laughter and Forgetting – Milan Kundera – I used to read The Unbearable Lightness of Being back in college, whenever I went through a breakup; it got to a point where I could finish the book in under 2 hours
  • The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana – Umberto Eco
  • Tours of the Black Clock – Steve Erickson – I read some of his essays, and started a nonfiction book of his on the 1996 election
  • Motherless Brooklyn – Jonathan Lethem – I liked his redo of Omega the Unknown but haven’t tried his prose
  • The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle – Haruki Murakami – read most of his non-fiction book about the Aum Shinri Kyo gas attack on the Tokyo subways
  • American Splendor – Harvey Pekar – I’ve read a bunch of these comics, but not everything, because I couldn’t stand some of the more prosaically drawn strips
  • The Rings of Saturn – W.G. Sebald
  • John Henry Days – Colson Whitehead

0-FER

  • In Memorium to Identity – Kathy Acker – should that be “Memoriam”? I’m too lazy to check. Maybe I’ll just appropriate the spelling from a canonical work instead.
  • The Blind Assassin – Margaret Atwood
  • 60 Stories – Donald Barthelme
  • G – John Berger
  • The Loser – Thomas Bernhard – I think I owned this and Concrete, because someone suggested I reissue a few of Bernhard’s books, back when I was a publisher, but I never opened ‘em. Sigh.
  • 2666 – Roberto Bolaño – I believe no one has actually read this book, and that it will actually become the hipster pickup book of its time
  • Anatomy of Melancholy – Robert Burton
  • The Universal Baseball Association, Henry J. Waugh, Proprietor – Robert Coover
  • City of God – E.L. Doctorow
  • Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With D. H. Lawrence – Geoff Dyer
  • Remainder – Tom McCarthy
  • The Lime Twig – John Hawkes – I have a copy of Second Skin down in my library; I like to think I’ll get around to it
  • The Lazarus Project – Aleksandar Hemon
  • Dispatches – Michael Herr
  • Skin – Shelley Jackson
  • Wittgenstein’s Mistress – David Markson
  • Women and Men – Joseph McElroy
  • At Swim-Two-Birds – Flann O’Brien
  • The Things They Carried – Tim O’Brien – my pal Elayne lent me this a while back, and I really need to get to it
  • Mulligan Stew – Gilbert Sorrentino - I think I used to own a Grove edition of this, but I don’t think I ever opened it
  • Trance – Christopher Sorrentino – Like father, unlike son; I didn’t even own a copy of this book

WHO?

  • The Hundred Brothers – Donald Antrim
  • Log of the S.S. Mrs. Unguentine – Stanley Crawford
  • I Am Not Sidney Poitier – Percival Everett
  • Notable American Women – Ben Marcus
  • PopCo – Scarlett Thomas

If you want to find out what I have read over the past 20 years, it’s just a click away!

Roman Gods

I’m working my way through Plutarch’s Lives (or Parallel Lives, if you like). I decided not to challenge myself to blog about it, the way I did with Montaigne, because I didn’t like the way that made me rush through some of the essays in an attempt to compress/distill them. I’m still glad I made my way through his work, but I need to revisit many of them. With Plutarch, I’ll share what I can, but I make no promises.

Anyway, while reading the life of Numa Pompilius, the successor to Romulus as king of Rome, I came across this wonderful passage:

To the god Terminus, or Boundary, they offer to this day both public and private sacrifices, upon the borders and stone-marks of their land; living victims now, though anciently those sacrifices were solemnized without blood; for Numa reasoned that the god of boundaries, who watched over peace, and testified to fair dealing, should have no concern with blood.

It is very clear that it was this king who first prescribed bounds to the territory of Rome; for Romulus would but have openly betrayed how much he had encroached on his neighbors’ lands, had he ever set limits to his own; for boundaries are, indeed, a defense to those who choose to observe them, but are only a testimony against the dishonesty of those who break them.

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